Life these days: a few links

July 23, 2016 § Leave a comment

It’s summer in Texas, and that means life these days involves traveling north as often as possible, eating Blue Bell ice cream on the back porch in the sun, and befriending anyone you can think of who might have a pool. It also means staying inside your room where you can type away at your computer while the friendly air conditioner hums.

Here are a few things I’ve written inside my air conditioned room this summer.

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I recently began writing for several nonprofits in Dallas. One is The Well Community, a small but stellar organization that serves those who struggle with mental illness in Oak Cliff, a borough of Dallas.

I’ve written about their weekly event Thursday Night Life, where Well members — those who deal with mental illnesses — are invited to fellowship with one another and volunteers and staff; a short profile of one of the Well members who battles schizoaffective disorder, a mental illness that has features of both schizophrenia and a mood irregularity like major depression or bipolar disorder; a peek into life at the boarding house where several Well members live; and a look at how The Well Community has become a family for the marginalized among us.

This nonprofit is wonderful, and I highly recommend it to anyone in Dallas or elsewhere wanting to help those in need.

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In May, I traveled to Iceland, a country which is becoming increasingly popular among tourists these days (for good reason, as you can see below!).

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If you’re interested in why it’s become so popular, as well as some of the best sites along the Ring Road, I wrote two travel stories for The Dallas Morning News based on my experience:

Iceland may be the coolest place to visit right now

The 6 most magical waterfalls of Iceland

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These days, I write for a number of nonprofits, startups, and other organizations. If you’re looking for a writer to help you on a project, big or small, please don’t hesitate to drop me a note! I would love to hear from you!

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The bump of a fall

July 6, 2016 § 4 Comments

Every so often, usually in the late afternoon when I’m a bit tired and would rather like a latte or a nap, a small voice in my head wakes up and this is what it says: “You, Elizabeth Hamilton, you are a failure. You have tried, and you have failed. You don’t have what it’s got.”

When this happens, I usually try my best to ignore the voice, and when that doesn’t work, I usually try my best to reason with it. “No, no,” I say, “I’m not a failure. Look at all I’ve accomplished! Look at all of the good things in my life! Why would you say such a thing about me!?”

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Yet, despite my best efforts, the voice in my head usually wins. Oh, occasionally I manage to pile enough of my accomplishments and a litany of good things in my life on top of the voice to muffle its insults, but the effort always leaves me emotionally drained and wondering if that voice might be correct after all. Maybe I am a failure. Maybe I don’t have what it’s got.

I know I’m not the only one out there with this voice in her head, and that’s got me thinking: why, exactly, do we think we’re failing? And why is failure such a bad thing?

And here is what I’m learning, here is what I’m glimpsing through the fog: failure isn’t such a bad thing, and though we’ve all failed in some ways at some things and succeeded in some ways at others, we ourselves are not failures, at least, not in the way the small voice thinks.

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When we fail at something, it hurts, yes, but it is within that space of disappointment and even despair that, if we’re willing, we can begin to understand greater truths about ourselves and the world in which we live.

I have failed and succeeded at a number of things in my short life. Yet while each failure rocked me to the core, split me open, broke me down, I found myself opening up.

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I found myself learning through failure what it was that I truly wanted, which turned out to be quite different than what I thought. I found myself developing empathy for others in similarly shattered situations, and out of this empathy came the greatest gift of all: love. Not love in a wishy-washy, I love M&M’s sort of way, but a deep, abiding love that sees the humanity in others and wills their good.

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And so, the voice in my head is wrong to call me a failure. Because what is failure without a definition of success? The two are wrapped together, opposing concepts known only as one.

To the voice in my head, success is immediate, and usually involves a vague notion of prestige and money and power. But with a little consideration, I’m seeing a new vision for success, one that finds fulfillment even in the center of disappointment, one that lets setbacks split me open so that a never-ending flow of warmth and light spills forth, one that realizes how you and I and everyone else are at our best when we are softened, and that softening comes most generously through the bump of a fall.

*Photos from my recent trip to Iceland.

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Lenses of gray

April 26, 2016 § 3 Comments

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.


I suppose it’s a personality quirk, this tendency of mine toward melancholy. In fact, all of the personality tests I’ve ever taken (Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, all of those free tests on BuzzFeed) tell me so.

If some people see the world through rose colored glasses, I see the world through lenses of gray.

Where others might find hope, I see a shattered world. Where others might find abundance, I see only what could have been.

Sometimes, this melancholy is warranted. Certainly, there are times when it’s appropriate to grieve, to feel downcast, to be sorrowful. But other times, this grayness can get the best of me.

Other times, I need to remind myself that while, yes, there is much to lament over, there is much to rejoice over too. There is so much goodness in this world. There is so much to give thanks for.

Which is why I’m reminding myself today: If a sacrament is a sign of God’s love in the world, then this life is flush with them.

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It is eating bowlfuls of my grandmother’s tortilla soup, simmered to spicy perfection. It is long walks in a green-canopied neighborhood that smells overwhelmingly like sugar-sweet wisteria. It is planning trips to a ranch in West Texas and a gravel road in Iceland and a lake town in Northern Michigan for a dearest of friend’s wedding. It is being asked to be maid of honor by another close friend.

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It is creamy lattes and bright green matcha tea and sour popsicles in the heat. It is morning sunlight illuminating my room like a sunbeam. It is hot black coffee and the friendly fern growing beside the windowpane. It is warm, shorts-wearing weather. It is looking above a concrete apartment complex to see a sky streaked in lavenders and blues.

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It is Blue Bell ice cream eaten in the starlit sun room of an old yellow-painted house. It is green-sprouting vines growing along red brick walls and making friends with a local barista. It is fresh mint in Earl Grey tea and evenings of hot yoga.

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It is this, all of it. It is a sign.

And it is good.

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Pine trees and cold water

March 22, 2016 § 11 Comments

“And you’re by yourself?”

I look at the park ranger.

“Yes,” I say. “I’m by myself.”

This is the third time she’s asked in, oh, five minutes. I see her raise her eyebrows, shake her head.

“It’s going to be a cold night,” she says.

“I know,” I say.

She hands me a parking pass. Is it incredulity I see on her face? Or am I simply projecting my own self doubt? Do I really believe I can make it a night alone in the woods?

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I foresee all the ways this night could go wrong. I’ve read my fair share of Stephen King: The convict watched as the girl unzipped her tent, all the while sharpening his blade against a rough stone. And I’ve read those news stories (actually, I’ve written a few): Police and community volunteers continue searching the woods for the girl who went missing last night. They discovered her campsite, but no remains…

How the hell am I going to make it through a night alone in the woods with thoughts like these?

But the parking pass is in my hand and the ranger has turned back to her computer. She doesn’t look so worried, so skeptical anymore. She just looks bored. So, I pocket the pass and head outside to the car.

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The idea for a solo camping trip began last fall, when I went camping out west with one of my dearest friends. I love camping and, introvert that I am, I enjoy being alone. A solo camping trip sounded like a great combo. But I didn’t have anything planned until last week. That’s when I realized I needed to get out of the city, needed to breathe the crisp woody air, needed to watch the sun sparkle over cold water.

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It was a need for beauty.

It was a need for solitude.

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Over the last two years, I’ve looked at my life and seen a lot of metaphorical death. I moved to Dallas for the dream of a job that didn’t happen the way I hoped. I watched a relationship crumble from the inside, realizing too late how desperately I wanted it to work. I grieved over the lost community and natural beauty I left behind in Southern California.

One of my friends once told me that solitary retreats allow space for thoughts hidden deep within us to sprout, to bubble forth, to surprise and overwhelm us. I have found this to be true. I’ve set aside long weekends for silent retreats before, and have found myself weeping uncontrollably one minute and overwhelmed by a sense of peace the next. This is what I went looking for on my solo camping trip. Perhaps a lot to ask of a 24-hour excursion, but if you don’t ask, you’ll never receive — or something like that.

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The park ranger gives me a site by the lake, a lovely spot to read and think and otherwise do absolutely nothing. It is a late Sunday afternoon, and I’m the only one in a campground of over a hundred sites.

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That afternoon, I’m only scared once.

A hiker decides to use a nearby picnic table for his post-hike snack. It shocks me to look over after setting up my tent and find him sitting so close. There’s nothing Stephen-Kingy about him, though.

But then again, there usually isn’t until it’s dark…

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After a dinner of cold sandwich halves, sweet blueberries, and an avocado eaten with a plastic spoon, I go for a walk. The sun has begun to set, and my side of the lake is already deep in shadow. But when I turn a corner my breath catches in my throat, my heart leaps into my mouth.

The light! It’s everywhere! Golden light. Dazzling, resplendent sunlight shattering thin green leaves, throwing golden warmth over everything; over tree bark, over scraggly brush, over pools of water, over my wan skin. The world is shot through with glory, and I’m standing in the middle of a sunbeam.

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I cross a wooden bridge, the planks split open by the sun. As I walk, tiny birds rush out ahead of me, flying seemingly from nowhere. A squirrel hunts for nuts in the hardened mud below the bridge, his normally dull fur turned luminous by the falling light.

I could stay here forever, transfixed by nothing more than the flickering shadows dancing across a single slice of sunlit bark. I do stay here for a long time, watching, listening, hidden away in an illuminated wood.

But eventually, the sun sets. Eventually, I walk back to my side of the lake, where the woods are chilled and growing darker.

The park ranger is right: it’s a cold night. Luckily, I brought a trusty below-zero sleeping bag. It’s like a heater, keeping me toasty as the temperature drops.

And who would believe it: I fall asleep. I curl up with the sleeping bag snug around my head, I read for a little while, and then am fast asleep. Not once do I consider the imagined and real horrors outside my sheer shelter. I don’t wake until morning, when hundreds of birds outside my tent explode into song.

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Here’s something I didn’t know: birds chirp loudest just before sunrise.

Which means, when I unzip my tent, I step outside to a frigid morning — a “cold-as-a-bullfrog morning”, as my grandmother might say — fog rolling in shivery sheets off the quiet water and the first lavender light smearing the sky.

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This Texas beauty is subtle. It’s the kind of beauty that sneaks up on you, catching you by surprise.

It’s unzipping a tent in the morning to find a world awash in creamy blues.

It’s watching a flock of ducks stream noiselessly across glassy water.

It’s staring absently at a log only to realize it’s actually a knobby turtle.

This is the gift I receive in the morning. This is the gift of facing my fear.

And this is what I’m learning: I’m learning to peer closer, to realize the fecundity of life right before me, to live with eyes open wide. I’m learning to face the fear of sleeping alone in a wooded forest, fully expecting to wake up astonished, and ever more alive.

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For any interested campers, I stayed at Tyler State Park, a lovely spot with pine trees and a small lake just an hour and a half from Dallas.

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Vignettes on love {1}

January 21, 2016 § Leave a comment

Last week, I decided to splurge on an evening yoga class.

I was feeling restless and anxious, restless because, well, I’m always on the lookout for that Next Big Thing, be it a trip or an experience or a person to befriend, and wanted that Next Big Thing to happen now dammit, and anxious because, as much as I believe in providence, the future often seems like a huge question mark looming over me, threatening to disrupt my otherwise pleasant life, and on that day, in my life, the future was all but completely blocking out the sun.

Yoga is one of the best ways I know to calm my nerves and pull me out of my own fruitless thoughts. So, I donned my workout clothes, filled up a bottle of water, and headed to the studio for a grueling hour-long class of downward dogs and upward dogs and warrior ones (and twos and threes) and tree poses and eagle poses and other poses whose names I don’t remember but man, were they hard.

At the end of class, our teacher dimmed the lights and turned on some classical music. She instructed us to move into our final pose, the pose which concludes every yoga class: shavasana (a.k.a. corpse pose).

In shavasana, you lie on your back with your arms and legs slightly spread apart. You close your eyes and breath deeply, relaxing your body into the floor and relieving any tension in the muscles. Traditionally, this position lasts around thirty minutes, though we Westerners shorten it to around five (I guess we have to rush everything, even our yoga classes).

As I lay on my back, my muscles loose, my skin shining with perspiration, the air I breathed hot and smelling of fresh eucalyptus incense, I began to relax. I felt the floor envelope my body, holding me against it like the palm of a hand might cradle something small and fragile. And as my body slackened and my mind quieted, something else appeared: an overwhelming sense of love.

A sense that, in the middle of my restlessness and anxiety, I was loved, not just by my friends and family, whose love is good, but imperfect, as is my love for them, but by something bigger, by God. And in being loved by God, by being enfolded in God’s wings, by being cupped in His large hand, I was protected, I was okay. Maybe not in the way I always want to be, with complete surety about everything and complete protection from every physical and emotional and even spiritual harm, but in a deeper way, an abiding way that would lead me from here through life to eternity.

Now, I am the first to admit that this kind of phenomena is easily dismissed by those who consider themselves rational (of which I am one). A rational person could easily say that I experienced this deep sense of abiding love because I was overheated. Or dehydrated. Or perhaps daydreaming in my listless shavasana pose.

Yes. Perhaps. I won’t say any of those explanations are impossible.

But I also won’t deny my own experience, and my experience tells me that I felt, for one brief moment, what it’s like to be wholly loved, and the freedom that comes from it, the freedom to open my eyes in that dark room, to roll up my mat, to move effortlessly across the creaking wooden floor to the air-conditioned lobby of that yoga studio with lightness and purpose and assurance in my existence as one who is loved.

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from my recent trip to Washington, D.C.

(Almost) a quarter of a century

November 11, 2015 § 8 Comments

This week, I catch a plane from Dallas to Denver, flying north as the sun rises, landing in view of the snow-capped mountains, greeted at baggage claim by one of my closest friends who now lives here.

She is the kind of friend I hope everyone has at some point in his or her life, a friend who’s known me through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, a friend who understands my single-line cryptic text messages sent in moments of despair, a friend whom strangers stop to comment on how happy we seem together, a friend who suggests road trips when we’re both feeling a little stir-crazy, a little unsure of what-the-hell-we’re-doing-with-our-lives, a little in need of wide open spaces and close companionship and fresh autumn air.

I am twenty-four and she is twenty-five, and so we are both right out of college in this strange in-between time where neither of us have our dream jobs and neither of us live in a city we truly love and neither of us are entirely sure we won’t be stuck for the rest of our lives telling well-meaning acquaintances who ask what we do that we’re “in transition.”

It is a stage of life where we have a lot of ambition and hope and courage, and piled on top of that a lot of fear and doubt, a stage of life so often caricatured by statistics and glazed-over profiles in newspapers and magazines: the generation of millennials-come-of-age who can’t seem to launch, can’t seem to move out of their parents’ basements, can’t seem to get full-time jobs, can’t seem to get off of social media, and can’t seem to accept that this is real life and real life is hard and you can’t always get what you want, but, oh by the way, this is 21st century America so actually you can have everything you want, you just have to either do something you love or find happiness in the small things while doing something you hate, and it will help if you eat healthy and learn these meditation tricks and buy a standing desk and then, then, all will be well and you really will look like that photo of the happy-go-lucky lifestyle blogger with over a million followers on Instagram.

Both of us are fairly level-headed and fairly well aware that these stereotypes are just that, stereotypes, and need not apply to us. But both of us are also “in transition”, and in need of each other and of Colorado’s open sky.

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Over the last few years, I have had countless conversations with friends and acquaintances around my age about how being in your twenties is just plain hard.

Usually, we talk about how up until now, everything in our lives was fairly mapped out: go to middle school, graduate; go to high school, graduate; go to college and, yes, graduate.

Now, many of us find ourselves in limbo. We have glimpses, dreams, visions of good and meaningful things we want to do with our lives, but how in heaven’s name do we get from here to there, and do we really have to take this boring office job or become a coffee shop barista or live at home with our parents along the way?

And even if we are fortunate enough to get the job we’ve always wanted or move to the city in which we’ve always thought would be amazing to live, suddenly, we see the cracks in the glamor and realize, okay, this isn’t exactly what I thought it would be. I miss my friends. I miss my family. I’m not quite sure this job is my vocation, or whatever, because it certainly isn’t filling me up to the brim.

I have been in both of these situations, and I think the word “hard” is apt. It may not be hard in the same way physical pain is hard or loss of a loved one is hard or poverty is hard or life as an immigrant is hard, but it is still hard, it is still confusing, and it still matters a heck of a whole lot when it’s happening to you.

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I am a Christian, and I have many Christian friends, and this is usually the part of the story where we start talking about finding fulfillment in God rather than our situations in life. We might bring up God’s will and how it is mysterious and how we never quite know exactly what He’s doing in our lives but through this suffering God is probably drawing us closer to Him, and isn’t that wonderful, isn’t that just peaches and cream?

I think it is. I really think it is. I think so, because I’ve been there. I’ve been at a low low place, where I thought I would be eaten alive by depression, where everywhere I looked I only saw creeping blackness threatening to tear apart my soul, and the presence of God was the only thing that kept me going. The words from the Psalms were my lifeline, hemming me in, behind and before, a healing balm, a soothing whisper, and yes, I was drawn closer into the mysterious presence of God during that time.

And yet, I don’t think it is blasphemous or uninformed or impious to say that a flippant answer like this doesn’t always feel like enough. Sometimes, looking for God’s will doesn’t seem like it’s getting me anywhere, and sometimes, telling myself that this is all part of a plan is a flimsy way of saying I’m trying to make the best of something that right now just doesn’t make much sense.

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My friend and I go to a park near her apartment and kick around a soccer ball. The sun is a high and bright November light. It is so warm, I wish I had packed shorts. We laugh as we reminisce about our crazy high school. We remember how I am no good at soccer. We toss around ideas for our upcoming road trip.

In the distance, the snow-capped mountains are one line of navy blue and another line of jagged bright peaks jutting high in the sky, a wall of solidity.

We go for a walk beside a sparkling creek, falling into step beside one another, continuing a conversation we’ve been having for years, one that began sometime in high school. We talk about our past, present, and future. We talk about our dreams.

Some of those dreams have become a reality. Some are still half-formed. Others are dreams we didn’t even know we had until they miraculously came true. God is surprising that way, I guess, always giving us what we need when we don’t even know we need it, always slowly revealing our insides to ourselves mysteriously over time.

This morning, I wake in the dark apartment to snow falling quietly. It is peaceful, a cold blanket, a fresh presence, and as I watch the flurries fall I think, we’re pressing into the uncertainty of a quarter of a century and together, in Colorado, under the sharp-edged mountains and the softly falling snow, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

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A life lesson from a dog

October 23, 2015 § 2 Comments

Every morning, after I drink my one to ten cups of coffee, I take Scout for a walk.

Scout is a border collie, a good-looking dog, if I do say so myself, with a half-white, half-black face rather like the phantom of the opera’s, the cutest wagging tail, and the brightest eyes that literally will melt your heart if you let them.

I hesitate to call him my dog because he was technically a Christmas present from my parents to my younger brother who then passed him along to my mom when he went to college who then passed him along to my grandmother who I happen to live with.

Still, Scout follows me around the house when I’m at home and has recently taken to sleeping in my room, something he used to reserve only for my mom and grandmother, who are both willing to hand feed him from a spoon, so even if he isn’t my dog, I seem to have inadvertently become his human.

I usually find walking Scout in the mornings a bit of an ordeal.

This isn’t because I have to get out of bed early to exercise. I am one of those strange breed of people who love both mornings and exercise.

No, it is because Scout finds everything along our way THE MOST INTERESTING THING IN THE ENTIRE WORLD and absolutely has to stop to inspect it.

We are barely out of the front door when Scout must stop to snuffle through the bush that borders the neighbor’s property. Then, we cross the street and he must do his business on a utility pole. And then, it’s a few more steps before a patch of ordinary grass must be thoroughly sniffed.

I always know when Scout will stop because he always inspects the same things every time: the patch of green ivy, the especially-gnarly-and-strangely-maroon-colored rock, the particularly large trunk of a live oak tree, and the pile of cut branches that’s been there forever and is probably infested with snakes.

What he’s looking for, I never know.

What I do know is this: no matter how many times he’s looked at that bush or that street sign or that concrete curb, it is still fascinating, it is still a marvel of existence, it still commands his full attention as though it were THE MOST INTERESTING THING IN THE ENTIRE WORLD.

Sometimes, waiting for Scout provides opportunities for thinking.

Last weekend, while Scout tangled his leash in a particularly prickly bush, I thought about one of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, and her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, an enigmatic account of her experience living in a cabin on the edge of a creek in the Appalachians.

In it, Dillard says that when she was a child in Pittsburgh she used to hide pennies in the sidewalk around her neighborhood, then draw chalk arrows pointing toward the hidden pennies for passersby to find. As a child, she thought any pedestrian would be delighted to find free money lying about, but as an adult, she wonders how many people actually cared about finding a penny, let alone bothered to pick one up.

“It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny,” writes Dillard. “But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.”

I think about this passage as I untangle Scout from that bush.

I think about how Dillard seems to be saying that the way we look at the world changes the way we experience it.

If you look for hundred-dollar bills on the sidewalk, you’ll be sorely disappointed. But if you look for pennies, before long, you’ll have a jingling collection.

In the same way, if you look for miracles or adventure or unusual occurrences on an ordinary street in a suburb of Dallas, you’ll probably be disappointed. But if you look for dew-dropped blades of grass or red-breasted cardinals or patches of multi-colored pansies, you’ll find yourself filled with delight at the splendor and mystery of the created world.

I am, of course, no good at this. While Scout races out of the front door straight for that neighbor’s bush, my response is something like, for heaven’s sake, Scout, we’ve seen this bush a milliton times, will you come on!

But then I pause and remember Dillard’s words and think, no, wait, look around, don’t expect something different, don’t expect anything at all. Instead, look at that bush and that tree and that patch of lawn and you’ll find the sparkling copper pennies that will make you rich.

Or, at least in Scout’s case, you’ll find some delightfully sniffable blades of grass.

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